Before the spring carnival, the worst thing that happened to my family was the amputation of Choppers’ leg five years before. Then, after the three of us adapted to one less appendage, drastic change returned to the easy kind. Like cutting my hair into a fashionable bob and wearing shorter dresses. Or Miss Helen coming up with another name for her moonshine and having to glue new labels on all the Mason jars.
Anticipated changes, like spring turning into summer, were rehearsed, old friends. So when the 1928 March page was forever ripped off our Coca-Cola wall calendar, the upcoming months were supposed to be a blueprint of the ones before. I thought I knew what to expect and ignorantly planned accordingly.
I pictured Betty, Mama’s best friend, showing me how to bloom wild and carefree like the Texas bluebonnets and Indian blankets. And, like the wildflowers, Betty would provide our cross timber and prairie land with much-needed color. She would continue to add pizazz to our small town and laugh at the rolling eyes of gossipers.
I believed Mama would drive us to Mineral Wells to picture shows, and Charlene and I to church picnics. While amongst the not-so-holy-rollers, we would place bets on which Methodist would be the first to get ossified on Miss Helen’s moonshine. Then we’d up the ante and guess which upstanding churchgoer would be first to holler at Sheriff Gunny Gibbons to “keep up the good work” — which really meant, “thanks for ignoring prohibition.”
Summer would turn into a heat that bore into our Texas bones like a drill pumping for oil. Except for keeping an eye out for rattlers, the heat wouldn’t stop us. The Brazos River was at our ready for splashing and squealing longenough to bring our boy talk to a brief halt. And on those warm summer evenings, the fireflies would almost provide us enough light for reading. These were my expectations, easy days when a calamity meant the latest Sears and Roebuck catalog was overdue on its delivery.
I counted on the everyday rhythm of sounds that, so deeply rooted in my marrow, had synced with myheartbeat. Miss Helen’s moonshine distillery thumping and hissing next door. Her son, Scooter, calling out to me, “It’s gonna grow, Emma June,” after he buried one of her kitchen utensils or some other what-not in their yard. Jazz music floating out from our Victor Victrola when Mama played her favorite records. The steady ticking of our grandfather clock. Cricket music soothing me to sleep. The hazy rumbling away of Ol’ Bess as Daddy left for the dairy each morning before the first rooster crowed. All familiar, promising sounds.
But, as I wore naive like the latest fashion, all normalcy came to a grinding halt. The crickets stopped chirping. The clock inside our once-respectable house stood still and silent. Because the snakes didn’t wait for summer to coil at our feet. They came on carnival night, flicked their lying tongues, and took Mama with them.
(Excerpt from Distilling Secrets by Carolyn Dennis-Willingham)
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